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Racial Diversity in Canadian Publishing – Does it Exist?

August 22, 2011

I feel I should start this post with a disclaimer – I am a reader. I review and chat books here for fun as an unpaid hobby, but at heart my interactions with books are solely as a reader. I know almost nothing about the publishing industry and even less about the situation in Canada. 

Yesterday I posted my recap of BookCampTO and the various sessions that I attended and what I took from them. I really enjoyed finally being able to attend an event like this in Canada. Previously with living in Charlottetown there just weren’t many opportunities and so the only conferences I had attended were Book Expo America and the Book Blogger Convention in 2010 and 2011. After BEA this year I posted a number of discussions on equity and diversity both in terms of who attended the events, in terms of what was available and pushed at the event, and also, after reading about it more, about how diversity in the jobs affects diversity of the titles.

While attending the session on Women in Publishing on Saturday I couldn’t help but also think about minorities in publishing and in published books in Canada, and how so much more is needed in these areas. When I mentioned this later on during the after party to someone who had presented in another session he simply laughed and turned away – why is this? I’ve heard numerous times that Canadians just aren’t willing to talk about issues of diversity, and I find that to be true. We love to flaunt how multicultural we are and celebrate that, but when it comes down to actual studies and statistics of our policies and offerings, as a country, we seem to be quite silent.

For example, in the United States the Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults performed a study on the variety of lists that libraries use in creating their collections and she studied a number of factors including gender, class, and race. Has something similar been done in Canada? I want to see a study of all of the books published and the breakdown on these factors. I also think we simply need to talk about how a lack of diversity in the industry affects the lack of diversity of titles being published, and even just acknowledge the lack of diversity that is published.

One article that I really loved on this topic is Zetta Elliott‘s Navigating the Great White North: Representing Blackness in Canadian Young Adult Literature. In the article she discusses what it means to never see yourself in literature and some of the statistics in Canada. Does anyone have any other great links to share? Again, as I noted above, I am rather on the fringe of the publishing industry so perhaps these studies have been created and perhaps you know more – if so please share!

So I close with a plea: Dear Canadian book community; please join me in talking about racial diversity and equity, and let’s see what we can do to improve it. Let’s see what we can do to get more diversity published, and how we can get a wider range of people out at literary events in the city.

And a plan: I would love to get publishers cooperation in gathering statistics. I’d like to get information on diversity of books published during 2012 to compile for informational purposes. I am fully prepared to do all gathering and analysis, if publishers would be willing to send data… A pipe dream? Perhaps, but I’ll keep dreaming and scheming!

30 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2011 10:25 am

    Yes, please! PLEASE do talk about diversity in Canadian publishing! This is experiential, but I find publishing to be overwhelmingly white. We need to talk about such things as the expectation of unpaid internships and the fact that the cultural industries lack racial diversity across the board.

    • August 26, 2011 8:18 am

      That’s what I keep hearing as well Julia. And it might not be true, but no way to find out unless it gets studied right??

  2. August 22, 2011 12:47 pm

    This is a great topic and one worth investigating. I hope you get the help and contribution required to successfully implement this study.

  3. August 22, 2011 1:21 pm

    Cheering you to the finish line on this one!

  4. August 22, 2011 2:41 pm

    sounds like a great torch to bear and highlight Amy ,all the best stu

  5. August 22, 2011 3:04 pm

    I’m not sure how I can help because I’m completely ignorant in this as far as stats and publishing goes. Thinking of Austin Clarke and Rohinton Mistry and Esi Edugyan etc., I don’t think I was really aware that diversity is a problem. I can’t see publishers rejecting or not acquiring mss based on race, particularly because those mss do enrich our literary repertoire and culture, but if this is an issue, why is it? And is it more prominent an issue with particular publishers? Does, for example, M&S publish more titles by non-white authors than, say, Harper? I have no idea. I do like the question re the lack of diversity within publishing companies perhaps affecting the lack in diversity in titles published. I don’t know the ratio of white to non-white staff in publishing, to be honest, though if I think about all my dealings with them, I’d say, yeah, probably not a lot of diversity.

    I’m not being much help. But I’m interested. I’d be curious to see where this goes. If I can be of any help, let me know how.

    • August 26, 2011 8:20 am

      Yes, I have no idea what the findings would be Steph. In some areas perhaps there is no issue (i.e. adult fiction) but in others I think there are… but no way to tell without looking at the stats right? I’d say diversity of staffing would affect diversity of titles acquired if only because of unconscious bias, but I’d like to learn more :) I have no idea if I’ll be able to swing it, but I’m working on a few angles at the moment trying to find some options. Will let you know :)

  6. August 22, 2011 8:13 pm

    I must admit that I’ve always thought of Canada as being more accepting of diversity while simultaneously being less diverse than America. I am aware I could be completely wrong on this as I couldn’t even tell you why I believe this or where the idea came from. I hope you get some real research going on this!

    • August 26, 2011 8:22 am

      Hmmm I think Canada is about as diverse Trish, though the US has a larger African American population. Or at least that was always my assumption :) Canadians I think tend to be more accepting of diversity, and we talk about multiculturalism a lot, but we’re rarely willing to take a hard look at stats and inequality and etc.

  7. August 22, 2011 10:22 pm

    I have every faith that you’ll be able to get these statistics together! I’m sure you can make an awesome spreadsheet and everything. Best wishes to you.

  8. August 23, 2011 8:04 am

    Hey, Amy–thanks for another thought-provoking post, and for linking to my article. I was in a similar state last year when I finally realized I would have to go it alone–I couldn’t find a single Canadian institution and/or scholar that was keeping stats by race. That’s part of the problem, of course–the sense in Canada that collecting such data is either undesirable or unnecessary…I think you could do a few things: check the online catalogs of the major presses, but set yourself a limit–maybe check the past five years or since 2000 and focus on novels or poetry or nonfiction. You can reach out to their customer service rep via email–that worked for me in some cases. You can also ask your blog followers for help! Most of the lists I’ve compiled on my blog have been a collective effort. I also reached out to editors of review journals and asked librarians and lit scholars to review my list and suggest titles I’d missed. What if you just tried to think of all the Canadian novels by authors of color that you’ve read and/or bought in the past few years. Just start there, then separate the list by year of publication. I suspect you’ll find that 2-3 PoC authors are published annually in Canada. It would also help to find out the total number of novels published each year so you get a sense of proportion…good luck! You have all the expertise you need to do this, and I certainly appreciate you taking on a big task that OUGHT to be done by the professionals…

    • August 26, 2011 8:30 am

      I am ashamed to admit, Zetta, that I’ve read very little Canadian lit in the past few years, so thinking of my own reading isn’t a great way to do it. The other suggestions all sound really good though. I’m hopeful about getting at least some of the smaller presses on board reporting the data which would make it much easier going forward to keep and analyze the data, but for previous published titles I think the only option would be manual as you say.

      According to this report ( by UNESCO the latest data on Canada is from 1996 at which point 19,900 books were published. I’d say we’ve surpassed that now as that is quite an old figure.

  9. August 23, 2011 10:25 am

    So glad you are talking about about the elephant in the room. I have plenty of first-person experiences w.r.t to this issue, but I would love to see some statistics to ground it all. I’d be glad to help in any way I can, and I’m extremely interested in the results.

    • August 26, 2011 8:30 am

      Yes, it seems the statistics are what is really missing for most people to even take the first person experiences seriously Niranjana. I’m hoping that it will be possible, I’m still examining a few options. Will definitely let you know :)

  10. August 23, 2011 11:04 am

    I will be interested to see what you come up with on this front, Amy.

  11. August 23, 2011 4:48 pm

    Amy, this is so needed here in Canada. I remember a couple of years ago now, trying to search for statistics related to diversity in Canadian publishing and basically coming to a roadblock. I called several agencies but none could provide any concrete facts. In the U.S. you can find some statistics to compare the number of books written by authors of colour and/or about diverse subjects but in Canada, it’s near impossible.
    I believe there is a disconnect between what publishers consider diverse titles and those that actually are. Diversity is still thought of as multiculturalism so if they publish a traditional cultural folktale or a story that (they think) fits the way most people think about a certain group, it’s called a diverse title.
    When I began approaching agencies, bookstores and organizations about A Lion’s Mane, I was met with some interesting experiences. First of all, it confused the category choice for it. Many thought it should be categorized under “Religion”. It seemed that seeing a person of colour on the cover of a children’s book was not so much of an issue but seeing that he represented a faith-based identity, was. I was told that perhaps my book would better appeal to the community it represented because it was confusing. I thought the whole point of reading was to become informed, learn something new so we can respond fairly through life. Then again, we all have hidden biases and preconceived ideas that need to change. It would help to have the authentic voices and stories to change the ideas though.
    With the anniversary of 9/11 approaching, I know how worried the Sikh community is about being targeted again or losing a loved one because someone’s preconceived idea points to a negative stereotype. If the identity continues to “confuse” people, nothing will change.
    I am SO looking forward to what you find.

    • August 26, 2011 8:34 am

      Yes it is all done in the US, but nothing here, Navjot. This makes me think both that it is possible and that it is important! And yes yes yes to the disconnect! Such a fantastic point. So difficult to get the understanding necessary from the Canadian market in terms of publishing and shelving and etc if they don’t experience it enough and if they don’t actually talk about it. I think the statistics are really necessary to see – is there really an issue? (I think so, but others think not, so stats would answer that definitively!) and then we could look at ways to move forward with the answers… but first… it will be a fun challenge!

      Completely understand the need to combat the negative stereotypes.

  12. August 26, 2011 10:21 am

    A most worthwhile and necessary endeavor. I remember lurking on Zetta’s site as she went through something similar last year. I think making a strong case for why the stats are necessary is important. Most publishers don’t believe that a market exists for diverse books of all kinds. We know that the market is there, though.

    • August 26, 2011 12:14 pm

      Yes, here in Canada they don’t like to admit that there may be an issue either which is the real issue with getting the stats Kinna. Hopefully I can figure out a way though!

  13. August 30, 2011 1:30 pm

    Slightly off-topic (in that it didn’t consider race) have you heard anything about the Geena Davis Foundation’s research into the presentation of female characters in films and TV programmes? They looked at US-produced material only, IIRC, but it was shocking how few female characters there were, and in what limited roles they were shown.

    I’m unsure whether anyone does this kind of statistical work in the UK – I suspect not, but I have no idea how to find out. In my limited and unscientific view, recently published books tend to examine otherness by using the paranormal (vampires, werewolves, etc.) than by making protagonists humanly black or Asian or mixed race. Which is rather sad, really.

    • September 3, 2011 11:24 am

      I hadn’t heard of the foundation or research but it sounds fascinating Ela. I am with you on that, ridiculous how crazily stereotyped the representations often are. And we don’t really notice it, which is what is even scarier. And YES re the paranormal rather than race! Interesting thanks for pointing it out!

  14. August 31, 2011 1:39 am

    Nice post, Amy! It is surprising that people still shy away from discussions on diversity. All the best with your initiative! Hope you hear from publishers and get statistics on diversity.

    • September 3, 2011 11:22 am

      Thank you Vishy :) It is odd isn’t it that it isn’t discussed more? Considered impolite I guess…


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